Chicago Fire Dept. to pay $3.8M in gender bias suit

The suit was filed in 2012 by dozens of women who said they were subjected to strength tests that were not "'job related' for the firefighter/EMT position


By John Byrne
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — The city is set to pay a group of African-American women $3.8 million as part of a settlement of a long-running federal lawsuit claiming that Chicago Fire Department tests were discriminatory.

The City Council Finance Committee will consider the payment Monday. It's the latest payout from the city because of allegations of racial or gender bias in hiring practices at the Fire Department in lawsuits that have gone back decades and already have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

The suit was filed in 2012 by dozens of women who said they were subjected to strength tests that were not "'job related' for the firefighter/EMT position, or 'consistent with business necessity' of the city," according to the suit.

The city settled the case in 2015 and continues to make payments.

The 12 women who would share the $3.8 million also were part of a larger group of African Americans who successfully sued the city in a separate case, alleging racial discrimination in a Fire Department written test given to job candidates in 1995. The city fought that case to the U.S. Supreme Court and in 2011 was ordered to pay a $30 million settlement to thousands of African Americans who lost out on becoming firefighters because of the written test.

The city also was ordered to hire 111 members of what became known as the "Lewis class" of black firefighter candidates and pay them $15 million in pension money they would have earned had they been hired decades earlier. But as part of their hiring, the 12 women were then forced to try to pass a physical strength test that already was the focus of another lawsuit by women who said it was unfair.

"We warned the city when we found out they planned to use that test," said Marni Willenson, the group's attorney. "We said, 'This test is already being challenged. You realize that, right?' We were very surprised they used it."

The 12 were part of a larger group that failed the physical test and brought their own lawsuit. After it was filed, the Fire Department agreed to do away with the previous physical skills test and adopt one used by many fire departments across the country.

Some of those women took a payment as part of the settlement. The group of 12 opted to take the new physical skills test, passed it and were hired by the Fire Department.

Monday's payment is to compensate the women for part of the pension contributions they would have received had they been hired earlier. In the end, the city will have paid them $5.8 million in back pension payments, Willenson said. The suit will end up costing the city $7 million total, she said.

Willenson also represents another group of women who filed a federal lawsuit in October alleging that they were forced out of the fire academy by instructors who discriminated against them.

"These women passed the new physical requirement tests that were put in place to get hired," Willenson said of the most recent lawsuit. "Then they got to the academy and got flunked because of these garbage tests the instructors there made up. They made them up. There's just this pervasive, deep-seated bias throughout the department."

Copyright 2016 the Chicago Tribune

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